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The theory of unchecked sovereignty

It is my conviction that by expressing the problem of politics in the form ‘Who should rule?’ or ‘Whose will should be supreme?’, etc., Plato created a lasting confusion in political philosophy. It is indeed analogous to the confusion he created in the field of moral philosophy by his identification, discussed in the last chapter, of collectivism and altruism. It is clear that once the question ‘Who should rule?’ is asked, it is hard to avoid some such reply as ‘the best’ or ‘the wisest’ or ‘the born ruler’ or ‘he who masters the art of ruling’ (or, perhaps, ‘The General Will’ or ‘The Master Race’ or ‘The Industrial Workers’ or ‘The People’). But such a reply, convincing as it may sound—for who would advocate the rule of ‘the worst’ or ‘the greatest fool’ or ‘the born slave’?—is, as I shall try to show, quite useless.

First of all, such a reply is liable to persuade us that some fundamental problem of political theory has been solved. But if we approach political theory from a different angle, then we find that far from solving any fundamental problems, we have merely skipped over them, by assuming that the question ‘Who should rule?’ is fundamental. For even those who share this assumption of Plato’s admit that political rulers are not always sufficiently ‘good’ or ‘wise’ (we need not worry about the precise meaning of these terms), and that it is not at all easy to get a government on whose goodness and wisdom one can implicitly rely. If that is granted, then we must ask whether political thought should not face from the beginning the possibility of bad government; whether we should not prepare for the worst leaders, and hope for the best. But this leads to a new approach to the problem of politics, for it forces us to replace the question: Who should rule? by the new question: How can we so organize political institutions that bad or incompetent rulers can be pre­vented from doing too much damage?

Those who believe that the older question is fundamental, tacitly assume that political power is ‘essentially’ unchecked. They assume that someone has the power—either an individual or a collective body, such as a class. And they assume that he who has the power can, very nearly, do what he wills, and especially that he can strengthen his power, and thereby approximate it further to an unlimited or unchecked power. They assume that political power is, essentially, sovereign. If this assumption is made, then, indeed, the question ‘Who is to be the sovereign?’ is the only important question left. [ch. 7, 132-3]

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